- Fighting for Press Freedom
Freedom of expression is an essential element of any truly democratic society. Yet governments of all stripes—self-professed democracies as well as more overtly autocratic regimes—tend to be hostile to the idea of a free and open press. Even in the most established and stable democracies, governments have shown an alarming willingness to inhibit free reporting on issues that they feel should be discussed only behind closed doors. The United Kingdom, for example, despite its long tradition of tolerance, has recently swung toward restriction of press freedom—especially under former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who on a number of occasions made use of existing legislation to ban television and radio broadcasts and prevent newspapers from publishing certain material.
If in countries with fairly open political systems journalists encounter obstacles to the effective practice of their profession, those trying to function in dictatorships often face personal harassment, persecution, and worse. Autocratic regimes continue to snuff out the slightest hint of dissent, jailing journalists who dare to criticize official policy or reveal details of government corruption. And in many areas of the world, sign159ificant numbers of journalists perish at the hands of shadowy death [End Page 159] squads, drug-trafficking cartels, and individuals who take offense when their misdemeanors are brought to light in print or over the airwaves. This, of course, is in addition to the many each year who lose their lives while covering civil wars and other violent conflicts.
It was with the aim of defending press freedom against all these onslaughts that a group of newspaper editors came together in New York in October 1950 to discuss the possibility of establishing an international organization of media professionals. The new body, they proposed, would work to expose the injustice and horror of dictatorship and would fight for the free flow of information as well as the liberty of journalists throughout the world to practice their profession without hindrance.
It was unclear to those present at that initial meeting whether the project would get off the ground or to what extent it would succeed in its stated mission. In 1951, however, the International Press Institute (IPI) was indeed founded, and it is now flourishing as the foremost organization dedicated to the struggle for freedom of the press worldwide. Its members, from more than 80 countries, include editors of newspapers and magazines, publishers, directors of news agencies, and executives of television and radio stations. Numbering over two thousand, with 50 members hailing from the new democracies of Eastern and Central Europe, they are in an ideal position to contribute to the IPI’s primary objectives, which are listed in the preamble to the group’s constitution:
1. The furtherance and safeguarding of freedom of the press, by which is meant: free access to the news, free transmission of news, free publication of newspapers, free expression of views.
2. The achievement of understanding among journalists, and so among peoples.
3. The promotion of the free exchange of accurate and balanced news among nations.
4. The improvement of the practices of journalism.
Projects and Activities
The IPI has sought to defend press freedom primarily by lodging official protests with governments, wherever and whenever violations of such freedom occur. In the four decades of its existence, it has experienced numerous successes. The most recent came in February 1994, when the Nigerian military regime, in direct response to a resolution passed at the Forty-third Annual General Assembly of the IPI in Cape Town, released from jail Alhaji Shehu Mesa Yardua, publisher [End Page 160] and proprietor of Reporter Newspapers. A sampling of earlier successes in individual cases would include the 1958 release from Turkish detention of a Greek-Cypriot editor, as well as the release in the 1980s of two prominent journalists in communist Czechoslovakia, who soon afterward became the IPI’s first two members from behind the Iron Curtain.
The IPI has always been especially active in support of the South African press, so severely persecuted under the various apartheid regimes. In 1988, in response to a strongly worded protest from the IPI, the Pretoria government suspended state-of-emergency regulations requiring freelance journalists...